Heated Discussion: Whatever Happened to Hell?

Column by Jim Bishop

Hell – the subject seldom is talked about in church or certain less sanctified settings, but you hear references frequently just about everywhere else – in casual and argumentative conversations, on TV and in movies – generally used upon slamming one’s fingers in the car door or to make feeble statements sound convincing, i.e., “So-and-so has one hell of a bat swing”; “He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”

However, the topic erupted this month at my congregation, Community Mennonite, and people generally warmed to this and other “rarely preached about anymore” themes, including “Whatever happened to … nonconformity … holiness … sin … ?”

The pastoral team has asked for additional suggestions. How about abstinence (much broader than sexual connotations), common courtesy and respect for authority, institutional loyalty?

How about “being on time?” Oooh, we’re really running the risk of emptying the pews here.

The concept of hell, a frequent sermon topic in my youth, was often part of the minister’s emphatic plea to say “yes” to salvation and the promise of eternal life and to avoid going to that other horrible place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Reflecting on hell raises some tough questions for me. Was hell part of the original creation process? Did God, who the Bible says created every living thing and called it “good,” already know before the foundation of the world that his supreme creations, man and woman, would disobey his command in the Garden of Eden not to eat the forbidden fruit and thus come to knowledge of good and evil?

If Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey was know to God before it happened, then that free will was a natural extension of humankind that continued from the dawn of creation to the present.

Membership in the family of God is free, a gift offered to all, but it comes with a cost – the price of one’s total allegiance. We all have freedom of choice; it’s not forced on anyone, even though some may try to “scare” others into the kingdom.

We may often hear or talk about what heaven might be like, but seldom include references to “the other place,” unless made in jest, a skeptical postscript or as a profanity. How glibly are persons told to go there.

The late Johnny Cash, who lived a hard, reprobate life and later became a transformed person, reportedly said, “I know I’m going to heaven. I’ve already been to hell.”

What kind of place is hell ? I choose not to dwell on mental pictures but simply accept such a place exists and leave the details up to God.

Still, it’s hard to put together the concept of God as a loving, compassionate heavenly parent who cared enough to send his very best – his only son – into the world on our behalf with that of a vengeful judge who will send persons made in his image to eternal perdition.

The creation account in the book of Genesis tells how our Earth began. The book of Revelation, not the easiest part of the biblical record to comprehend, states how it will end. But, when? That’s known only to the Alpha and the Omega, one who shaped this orb and everything and everyone in it. If there’s a heaven, a future paradise for all who believe in and follow God in this life, then surely there must also be a literal hell.

If you don’t believe any of this, then we have few talking points from here and other things to be more concerned about. But if hell is where those who reject God will be consigned, shouldn’t that make a difference in how we live now, in light of eternity?

However one might conceive of hell, is it not ultimately the tragic possibility or eternal separation from God, both now and forever? The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 paints a vivid picture of this great, tragic chasm.

Let’s talk more often about hell – without fear and trembling – and use it less as an epithet.


Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.

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